Gifts and Gambits

“There.” With a final tug, Prillani Kitorn settled the hem of her new gown around her waist and twisted to see the effect in the mirror.

The bodice of the dress clung to her skin, dipping lower on her chest than anyone without a crown would dare reveal as the ruby skirt swirled around her hips. The silhouette had a far more muted flare than was traditionally popular, accentuating the height that put her at eye level with many men and taller than most women. A minor scandal if she wore this on her southern visit. A perverse desire made her grin. Southern men liked their women short, prudish, and brainless, or so all evidence implied. They’d hate to see Prillani in this.

A cursory rap at her door announced the arrival of her father, King Aran Bira. Her father stepped inside without waiting for her invitation, muttering under his breath at the wealthy merchant who matched his steps. Their conversation cut short as Prillani dropped into a curtsy.

“Gods above, child.” Her father turned away from her in shock, his pale skin flushing with embarrassment. “Put a proper chemise under that.”

“It wouldn’t fit—” Her reply was lost in the merchant’s laughter.

“Your majesty, it’s intended to show as much,” the merchant said. “A beautiful creature like your daughter here? It would be a crime to hide that richly colored skin beneath a chemise and formal gown. This color truly shines against her complexion as it would not on your true-born child.”

Prillani’s mirth faded at the comment. Not as dismissive as some of her father’s courtiers, but still a heavy dose of condescension. She wasn’t a person so much as an exotic display for his wares, complete with unusual skin tone to better highlight certain colors. Prillani rose from her curtsy and crossed the room to join them as her father scowled.

“My daughter is not a creature,” he snapped. “And you’d better placate her or your wares can find another complexion to match and another purse to milk.”

“Pardon, please I meant no insult.” The merchant’s words tumbled over each other. He scanned the room as if looking for an explanation, finding nothing but the tightly shuttered windows and heavily draped walls of Prillani’s dressing chambers. “I’d no intention of taking coin for this gown. It was sent as a gift from my patron. He hoped your majesty might honor him by receiving his envoy.”

“Your patron is who?” Prillani smiled at the merchant, letting her own irritation simmer in her words. “We’ll need to check his ancestry. The royal family of Osuvia can hardly host any random commoner as an envoy, however wealthy.”

“Oh course, your highness,” the merchant said. “I’m afraid I cannot give you his heritage, only that my patron comes from old blood in Sernyii. With recent events, he fears to reveal too much to the wrong ears.”

She scoffed at the claim. “Another descended from old Sernyii? Of course he is. Take your claim elsewhere. I’m sure a man as well-versed in genocide as the late imperial high emperor could properly exterminate the noble bloodlines from his enemies.”

“The royal family graciously accepts your patron’s gift, however,” her father added. “Now that I’ve adjusted, I do like the cut of that gown on my daughter.”

The merchant hesitated, glancing from father to daughter and back. “I throw myself on your mercies, your majesty. Your highness. Allow me to explain.”

He prostrated himself on the floor, hands shaking in a way Prillani had rarely seen. Only a few times, when a brutal punishment was needed to keep the peace and the prisoner stood before the block. What could terrify the man so much? Another reason to reject this patron. Anyone who scared his own servants this deeply could only be dangerous for her family.

“What more could you have to say?” her father demanded. “Your patron claims a bloodline none can prove in a country that no longer lives. Whatever influence he thinks he might gain here, he offers no value to our court.”

Prillani waved a hand to silence the merchant before he could reply. Turning to her father she whispered in the northern dialect of her father’s birth. Unknown beyond their borders, it ought to give them a moment of privacy even without expelling the merchant.

“If we recognize Sernyii, it may put a buffer between the empire and our mountains.”

“The kingdom surrendered long before the war ended,” her father replied. “What claim would we have? A stranger’s word means nothing without a story and the power to spread it.”

“Rumors say the surrender was coerced,” she replied. “And none doubt the conflict started over blood thirst and not vengeance. What harm in crowning a false king beholden to our nation?”

Her father bit at his lower lip, considering her words. There was harm in crowning a false king, of course. Osuvia’s nobility spent most of its time protecting the bloodlines of the older families from the contamination of a single-term ruler. A ruler who didn’t understand the pressures of power could easily tear carefully crafted negotiations apart. Still, her father had recently embraced the heart of their own long-standing tradition to appoint each new ruler from a new family line. After years of trading favors between the fine houses, his succession would be the first to place an adopted commoner on the throne. If he could prove the concept was viable by supporting a foreign ruler, it would ease her adopted sister’s transition to the throne.

“We cannot accept your patron’s envoy here,” her father said, turning back to the merchant as his dialect transitioned back to the main tongue. “Not until his heritage and claims can be verified. But perhaps a meeting can be arranged on neutral ground. My daughter travels south to discuss our trade routes in the imperial province of Sentar this fall. As your patron claims to be of Sernyii, he surely knows his way around the lands she’ll travel through.”

“Indeed he does.” The merchant sagged against the tiled floor, his relief a tangible thing. He cast a smile up at them. “And as your majesty said a neutral location would suit better, I can offer for my patron to speak with your esteemed daughter in Sentar Province. He holds a refuge there, as the local high lord has some sympathies for the Sernyii homeland.”

“Very well.” Her father gestured to the door. “My steward will arrange the details.”

The merchant retreated out the door, bowing over and over as he backed away. Clearly he had no real knowledge of a royal court, but for all his blunders he might be useful after all. Prillani walked over to her dressing table, picking through the jewels she’d laid out. This dress needed a very specific set of accessories to focus the eyes in the right place. No diplomacy ever survived a lecherous man staring at her breasts. She selected a tight choker with an exquisite emerald set into the front and turned back to her father.

“Do you think the new high lord of Sentar will like this?”

Her father frowned. “You’ll stay away from the new high lord down there. I’ve heard plenty of rumors about his interests.”

“Father.” She chuckled. “You can’t think I’d fall prey to any of his entreaties. We worked too hard to find me a husband who wouldn’t treat me as a trophy. No tumble, how ever experienced the man, is worth losing that.”

She suspected the rumors held more speculation than truth, anyway. There were other, older rumors about the new high lord of Sentar Province. Rumors no one liked to talk about because the newer ones held so much more scandal. Supposedly, he single handedly revitalized the rebellion against the Laisian Empire’s brutal high emperor. He may have even killed the emperor himself in retribution for the atrocities the empire had suffered. She had trouble reconciling the principled, driven warrior with the careless womanizer who cast off his conquests as soon as he’d finished his own pleasures. One of the stories had to be false. Much easier for a war hero to fake promiscuity than a fop to pretend war prowess.

“I don’t trust him, Pri,” her father replied. “There’s something off about him. You know the history he’s supposed to have. If he wanted those rumors quelled they would be, so what benefit is he getting from looking weak? And why do I hear so much about the army he’s building?”

“We won’t know until we approach him.” She set the choker back down, fiddling with the clasp. Maybe another. She couldn’t get out of that one easily, and if this new high lord was dangerous she couldn’t afford anything he might use as a weapon. “I’m going to wear this dress to his palace.”

“You’re begging for a diplomatic incident, aren’t you?” But he laughed. “As chaste as they expect their women, what respect will they show you in that? You’re there for diplomacy.”

“Imperials aren’t going to listen to me,” Prillani said. The bitterness sat in her throat, unvoiced. But she knew he’d understand. “I’m not only female, I’m visibly foreign. Of the sort they actively tried to expel a decade ago. Send the steward for the standard trade deals. He’ll manage as well as I. But the high lord—”

“I don’t want you getting too close to him.”

“I don’t mean that.” She waved at the dress. “The merchant said his patron has a house in Sentar because of the high lord’s sympathies. I’ve heard a dozen things about the high lord’s time in the war, but betraying his current emperor? That’s something we should investigate. And if I alienate the other nobles, I’ll have time to meet this patron and evaluate if the high lord is really an ally in my plans for Sernyii.”

Her father paced away, to the door and back, his lips set in a grim line. Finally, he turned back with a sigh.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll authorize one negotiation with the high lord, but only if you have evidence and surety of his support against any future aggressions of his homeland. Make it a military resource, so he has to commit to helping us.”

“Perfect.” And she knew exactly what resource to ask about. One that would test his knowledge of Sernyii’s resources and his loyalty to his homeland all in one.


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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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